Normy news or How to float your product up the market.

This week a friend and I were talking about her blog and something came up which started me thinking about ‘norms’ – those essential stereotypes we use all the time in  marketing. The blog is about perfume, a pet subject of mine and a market which I understand well. It’s very clearly divided between high-end niche perfumes from brands such as Amouage, Editions de Frederic Malle, Serge Lutens, Caron, Guerlain, that you can only find in boutique perfumeries or exclusive department stores; mid-range such as Chanel, Dior, YSL, Vivienne Westwood, Prada, Clarins, Lancome that you can find in all department stores; lower-mid range like Cacharel, Diesel, Britney Spears, JLo, Beckham and Hugo Boss that you can buy in pharmacies and chains such as Superdrug and Boots and then the rock-bottom cheapies, copies and ‘in the style of’ versions you pick up for under a fiver in discounters. Anyone who has ever bought a bottle of perfume knows exactly how this works, where their favourite fragrance sits in this market and exactly where the line lies when buying a Mother’s Day present.

This week my blogger friend has been reviewing celebrity scents; about which there is much snobbery. The rise of celebrity perfumes is a recent phenomenon, even though there were a few notable perfumes released by actresses in the 1980s (Cher’s Uninhibited, Catherine Deneuve’s Deneuve, Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion). Since Jennifer Lopez released JLo Glow in 2002, to great financial success, the celebrity perfume model has been so profitable that the trickle has now become a deluge, with reality show personalities and pop stars releasing a new fragrance each season and actresses replacing models as the ‘face’ of a fragrance. Evidently, this is a money-spinning opportunity like few others. With raw ingredients costing relative peanuts compared to the final sale price, most of the financial investment goes into marketing and branding – from designing the bottle to funding launch parties and a media-blitz to launch the product.

Yet there has always been a little moue of distaste at the idea of wearing perfume sold by a celebrity. Somehow it’s not a chic as a perfume from a saddler such as Hermes or Gucci, or a dressmaker, like Dior, Chanel or Yves St Laurent (though admittedly, they do know a few things about being chic). But what qualifies them to know anything about perfume, apart from a well-defined sense of personal taste and an understanding of the changing fashions? Coco Chanel was no more trained as a perfumer than Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears or Snooki. (Whatever Snooki is – an orange cartoon character, I believe?) But it’s exactly that kind of sniffy little comment that makes most of the population unwilling to admit ‘I smell of Paris Hilton’s CanCan’, but perfectly happy to say ‘I smell of Lancôme’s Ôui!’

Admittedly, there is often a small but essential difference in the money spent on the juice in the bottle. Higher-end perfumes often contain rather more expensive ingredients, and are developed by a prestigious ‘nose’ – effectively an olfactory creative director who composes the formula to address a loose and evocative brief. For mass-market celebrity scents, less is spent on ingredients and the brief is usually dictated by a marketing team who tightly focus-group how the target market wants to smell, rather than giving the nose creative control. This explains why there is so much uniformity among the mass-market scents – a fairly universal fruity/sweet/patchouli-based fuzz seems to be what the teens and early twenties focus groups said they wanted a couple of years ago, so that’s what Proctor & Gamble and Coty are putting into bottles and stickering with random celebrity names. And let’s be honest – the celebrities are signing up because it’s a great earner. Popstars and tv show personalities know that their fans will want to buy a £20 bottle of perfume so they can smell like their favourite star. These aren’t classic perfumes created to stand the test of time, they’re FMCG, to be used up and moved on from.

This flood of mass-market fragrances from celebrities has shifted the stereotype and reshaped the market, and now perfumes ‘created’ (perhaps ‘approved’ is more honest) by actors seem to be given more credibility, placing them with fashion designers, jewellers and saddlers, albeit on the bottom end of that mid-range. With financial constraints having an impact on our buying habits, the days of splurging at the Chanel or Guerlain counter are over, and consumers are looking for less expensive alternatives for everyday wear to the office or supermarket. The early-adopters SJP and JLo have been taken into the fold and accepted as vendors of quality goods, with SJP’s Lovely inheriting the mantle of Lauder’s White Linen as a school-run classic for Boden-wearing mummies, while Halle Berry, Kate Walsh, Jennifer Aniston and the Beckhams’ are producing surprisingly good affordable perfumes and aftershaves that are impressing the ‘squeezed middle’ market and critics alike. As for the originals I listed earlier, check out eBay, where vintage bottles of Deneuve now sell for astonishing prices.

It seems that the way to get a marketing stereotype to shift and allow your product to move upscale a little – to come in from the cold to become a popular lower-mid-range fragrance – is to float on an enormous tide of poor-quality mass-market copycats and to pay attention to your brand and imply better quality by injecting some of your personal taste and insisting on slightly better quality ingredients and slightly less focus-grouped formulae.

Integrity, it seems, actually does smell better.